Political Obstacles Slow Disaster Aid for Myanmar

The nation's military dictators are wary of admitting foreigners to help with relief efforts.

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A girl drinks water from a container as her homeless family eat donated food in Konegyangone township in the outskirts of Yangon.

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Officials in Myanmar are still struggling to count the dead from a monster tropical cyclone that swept through over the weekend, but efforts to aid the survivors have been hampered by the slow response from a military junta that is notoriously suspicious of outsiders.

Amid estimates that the death toll from the storm topped 22,000, the government of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) said that it welcomed humanitarian aid from "friendly" countries. But aid workers had trouble getting visas to enter the country. United Nations relief officials, along with a team of U.S. disaster assessment officials, were stalled by visa delays.

Myanmar's deep reluctance to admit the additional teams left a small number of aid workers already in the country struggling to cobble together deliveries of food and water to as many as 1 million people left homeless. "This regime is extremely paranoid and isolated and xenophobic," says Derek Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The prospect of having all kinds of people from all over the world doing work they cannot really control or even monitor is troubling to them."

The U.S. military offered to send Navy ships to aid in relief efforts. But the regime in Myanmar might not find that to be a reassuring offer, particularly after listening to years of senior U.S. officials' condemnations of the country's military leaders. "Even under the best of circumstances, nations that know the United States is out to get them would be suspicious," says Mitchell.

Unsurprisingly, aid groups are reluctant to criticize Myanmar's regime too publicly because they fear losing whatever access to the country they have been granted. But aid workers are growing increasingly worried about the delays. "Everything hinges on access," says Greg Beck, the Asia regional director for the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian aid group. "The international aid community needs to get staff and supplies into devastated communities rapidly if we're going to avert further deaths."

Maung Maung Swe, Myanmar's minister for social welfare, said the government has a process that must be followed. "For expert teams from overseas to come here, they have to negotiate with the Foreign Ministry and our senior authorities," he told a news conference.

But with tens of thousands of people without access to clean drinking water, food, or shelter, aid groups are worried about the scale of the disaster. "Prices of basic foods, including rice, have already doubled in the last few days, which is very worrying for a population who have already been living under precarious circumstances before the cyclone," notes Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian aid group with teams inside Myanmar.

Even for relief workers already stationed in the country, access to the worst-hit areas is difficult, both for assessment teams and for those bringing in relief supplies. Many of the main roads have been destroyed, and there is limited access to other means of transport.

The slow response by Myanmar's pariah military junta is another black eye for a government recently under public scrutiny for its violent suppression of monks leading democracy protests.

A bungled response "could create new tensions and fissures" inside Myanmar, says Mitchell. "But that's a possibility we see no evidence of yet."